Philae probe finds evidence that comets can be cosmic labs

July 30, 2015 byFrank Jordans
Philae probe finds evidence that comets can be cosmic labs
The July 20, 2015 photo released by the European Space Agency ESA on Tuesday, July 28, 2015 shows an image of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko with its coma taken by the Navcam camera of the Rosetta orbiter from a distance of 171km (106 miles) from the comet center. (AP Photo/ESA/Rosetta/Navcam)

Scientists say the Philae space probe has gathered data supporting the theory that comets can serve as cosmic laboratories in which some of the essential elements for life are assembled.

Philae, which is part of the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, used two separate instruments to 'sniff' for molecules during its bumpy landing on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last November.

In an article published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers said they spent months analyzing the data and concluded that 67P contains at least 16 organic compounds. Four of them, including acetone, hadn't been detected on a comet before.

"Comets are loaded with all the raw materials like water, CO2, methane, ammonia, needed to assemble more , perhaps sparked by UV-photons from the Sun or cosmic rays, or in the shock that occurs when a comet hits the surface of a planet like the young Earth," said Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientific adviser at the European Space Agency.

It's not yet known whether the found in 67P were made in the early solar system and then incorporated into the comet or formed there later, he said. "Either way, it seems that comets are pretty good places to find the building blocks of molecules which later on could be used for life."

McCaughrean, who wasn't directly involved in the study, dismissed recent reports that evidence of life itself had been found on the comet. But he said the prebiotic compounds that were detected might be coaxed into even more complex molecules such as amino acids, including by a planetary impact.

Proteins, fundamental to living organisms, are made from long chains of amino acids, and the simplest one, glycine, was even detected in material collected from the tail of another comet by NASA's Stardust mission a few years ago.

The Philae scientists have not found any on 67P yet, but that's not to say they aren't there. As Philae was only able to perform experiments for 60 hours before its batteries were depleted, scientists were unable to complete some of the work they had hoped to carry out.

The woke up from hibernation last month, but the German space agency DLR that operates Philae has not yet been able to establish a robust connection to restart the scientific experiments. Still, scientists are hopeful that this will be possible as the probe and its mother ship Rosetta, which is orbiting the comet, accompany 67P on its journey through space.

The next important event in the mission will take place on Aug. 13, when the comet comes closest to the sun, a point known as perihelion.

Along with their findings on the comet's chemical composition, scientists also published new insights about its rocky terrain and its unexpectedly hard surface, which may prove crucial to future comet missions.

"We have definitely learned at least one thing with this first comet landing: Bouncing is a bigger problem than a possible sinking into the ground," said Philae to project manager Stephan Ulamec.

Explore further: Scientists say comet lander may have shifted position

More information: The landing(s) of Philae and inferences about comet surface mechanical properties, … 1126/science.aaa9816

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1 / 5 (1) Jul 30, 2015
Comets could be a space shuttle's slingshot. We could ride on the comet and then save fuel until the right time and then launch off. Meanwhile, we could be breeding and creating a new population of space humans.
5 / 5 (2) Jul 30, 2015
Meanwhile, we could be breeding and creating a new population of space humans.

You need to think through the ethics involved.
4.3 / 5 (6) Jul 31, 2015
NIPSZX suggested
Comets could be a space shuttle's slingshot
Very difficult as slingshot effect requires sufficient gravitation, correct object trajectory & availability (ie regular orbits or accessible orbits in relation to intent). Comets unfortunately fail in all of these, besides attempting a slingshot can easily change comet's trajectory (potentially disastrous) & predicting that is complicated for any length of time ie "multi body problem"

We could ride on the comet and then save fuel until the right time and then launch off
No. Comets not powered, move due to gravitation ie same as the craft & since its mass is very low not much value in trying to 'land' on it. Also wasteful re fuel ie Expended to match it's velocity & expended again to 'push off'' unless exactly where needed

Meanwhile, we could be breeding and creating a new population of space humans
Eugenics always failed & as Vietvet offered has issue of ethics
5 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2015
Well, I am glad I was wrong. Sometimes I get worried somebody will take one of my ideas and make millions. I would rather be wrong then that happen. But, it would be a good movie plot.
2.3 / 5 (4) Jul 31, 2015
I don't see how it could be wrong. We may need new species of humans to adapt to new trials. What would matter would not only to "not cross the line", if modifying humans would not even be too much, but also to make sure there's no inferiority/superiority complex.
....yeah, it may be more difficult than to actually create those new humans. Still, there's something we can do with those comets. It would be surprising to not find a way to use them.
5 / 5 (5) Jul 31, 2015
Comets could be a space shuttle's slingshot.

Doesn't work that way. As Mike notes not enough gravity.
If you want to use it as a ride then first you have to match velocities to land on ot. But that's pointless because if you have matched velocities then you are describing the same orbit as the comet - so you'd go exactly the same way (whether the comet is in your vicinity or not). So you'll not save any fuel at all.

But, it would be a good movie plot.

Certainly would be better than "Interstellar" (picked that up a couple weeks back. God. What an awful movie. And not just the actors. It gets pretty every scientific aspect 100% wrong)
1 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2015

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